During the month of September 2012, the IASPM-US website will feature essays on the topic of “The First Time I Ever Heard…” Each of our authors for this series will explore that magical moment most of us are so familiar with, when a song or artist or genre first entered our sound universe and knocked everything off its axis, if only for a moment.
When I was a kid, I had a 1953 Zenith tabletop AM/FM radio with a round dial on its face and a brown Bakelite case. It was a hand-me-down from my father, who had used it primarily to listen to classical music broadcasts. When he bought an impressive new hi fi stereo system, ensconced in a custom-built wooden cabinet so massive it was practically a new wing on the house, I got the tabletop radio.
I spent many hours listening to that radio in my room, always to the AM side of the dial. When I was around eleven years old, I missed the first part of the school year because of a serious illness. The radio got me through the daily tedium of convalescence, from avuncular Arthur Godfrey in the mornings to music late at night. Music that often seemed very strange, because I was hearing only fragments of it dragged in through the ether. I remember hearing Bobby Darin’s version of “Mack the Knife,” but only the line about “cement bags just a droopin’ on down.” I had no idea what I was listening to and could not construct a scenario in which that line would make sense on the basis of what I’d heard.
“Why are you listening to AM radio anyway?” my friend asked. He was a bit younger than me and we were hanging out after Hebrew school. “Do you really like those DJs screaming at you? Here, listen to this” and he wrote down “WBCN 104.1 FM” on a slip of paper. I took his advice, and my conversion to FM freeform underground rock radio was immediate. All the more so because one of the first things I remember hearing on WBCN was the Bonzo Dog Band’s “Ali Baba’s Camel.” Even though I was used to having weird things come at me over the airwaves, my basic reaction was “What the??” If I’d been a character in a sit-com, I’d have done a spit-take. I had never heard anything like it. It’s hard for me to reconstruct at this remove exactly what I responded to: its strangeness, its anarchism, its humor, its snarkiness, its Britishness, the sheer joy of it. But I somehow knew that the Bonzos were my kind of people and I immediately cashed in a Harvard Coop gift certificate to obtain several of their albums.
The Bonzo Dog Band – Ali Baba’s Camel
[ca_audio url=”http://iaspm-us.ipower.com/Audio%20Files/7%20Ali%20Baba’s%20Camel.mp3″ width=”450″ height=”27″ css_class=”codeart-google-mp3-player”]
The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, as it was originally called (the name lasted only through their first album) was one of many bands to emerge from the British art colleges in the 1960s. Bonzo was an enormously popular and ubiquitous canine cartoon character from the 1920s, created by the illustrator George Studdy; the “doo dah” was a reference to Da Da, the early 20th century art movement. The group did not start out as a rock band but took the “trad” jazz (a mixture of Dixieland, ragtime, and dance music from the 1920s and 1930s) that had gained a foothold in postwar Britain as its field of endeavor. This they played raucously and satirically in pubs and workingmen’s clubs as part of a vaudevillian stage show fronted by the group’s leader, Vivian Stanshall, a tall, red-haired man with a posh accent that belied his actual class origins and a self-consciously effete manner. He was aided and abetted by Neil Innes, the group’s pianist and other main vocalist. They were not alone in mistreating trad jazz: their predecessors included the Temperance Seven, an ensemble of drolly meticulous players, and the Alberts, a group of comedy musicians who seemed to play as loudly, and crudely, as possible. The commercial tip of this iceberg was the New Vaudeville Band, who had an international hit in 1966 with “Winchester Cathedral,” sung in a Rudy Vallee-like, through-the-megaphone style. The BDDDB fell somewhere between the Temperance Seven and the Alberts: capable of playing it straight, but more interested in taking the piss by emphasizing every trad cliché from the fiercely strummed banjo to the “laughing” clarinet.
This version of the group recorded several singles in 1966. Once they began recording albums, however, the band trimmed down from ten or more members to six and moved rapidly toward a rock sound, despite the lack of a stellar guitarist, assaulting rock with the same enthusiasm as they had trad jazz. Their first album, Gorilla, appeared in 1967. In “The Intro and the Outro,” which leads off the second side of the original LP (and from which I took my title here) Stanshall introduces each band member individually while the group plays Duke Ellington’s C Jam Blues. After each Bonzo is introduced, Stanshall begins mentioning others in the band: Eric Clapton, ukulele; Charles De Gaulle on accordion (“Really wow, General!”), and so on. The Doughnut in Grannie’s Greenhouse (1968), the second album, is the BDB’s Sgt. Pepper, an album of original compositions written mostly by Stanshall and Innes, covering a range of styles but conceived as a whole that manages both to exemplify and travesty psychedelic rock. The third album, Tadpoles (1969), was a bit of a step backward in that it combined take-offs on trad with new rock songs, including “The Canyons of Your Mind,” Stanshall’s take-no-prisoners parody of Elvis. The BDB’s fourth album, Keynsham (1969), sometimes described as a concept album, is a pure rock album that features some more serious, even sentimental moments alongside the piss-taking and corny jokes.
“Ali Baba’s Camel,” which appears on Tadpoles, is a novelty foxtrot written in 1931 by Noel Gay, England’s answer to Irving Berlin. It reflects the Bonzos’ early practice of garnering much of their repertoire from 78 RPM discs purchased at flea markets. Although the CD compilation Songs the Bonzos Taught Us includes the version by the Rhythmic Troubadours, it is more likely that the BDB based their version on the recording by Buddy Lewis and His Orchestra, which includes the same verses they use and some of the same sounds, such as a slide whistle.
The song’s first few lines are:
You’ve heard of Ali Baba
Forty thieves had he
Out for what we all want
Lots of LSD
In 1931, LSD stood for Pounds/Shillings/Pence but this lyric took on a rather different meaning in 1969–one not lost on my young self–that resonated with the song’s exotic Orientalist atmosphere and the hallucinatory quality of the BDB’s performance. The BDB version features Stanshall’s megaphone-style crooning, a propulsive rhythm section that includes a tuba, and all kinds of noises, effects, and interpolations layered into the song’s nooks and crannies. Both Buddy Lewis’s and the BDB’s versions contain a quotation from Chopin’s Funeral March at a key point in the narrative (no spoilers here!), but the BDB also threw in “The Streets of Cairo” and “Knees Up Mother Brown” for good measure. Almost everything mentioned in the lyrics is dramatized sonically: the camel’s affectionate licking of Ali Baba is rendered as a huge slurping sound, for instance. The repeated refrain “Oh how the camel loved Ali Baba” is performed differently each time, including a rendition that sounds like a group of American male cheerleaders and another hushed version that evokes a prayer service in a cavernous mosque. It ends with a smattering of applause and whistles, as if the whole song had been performed in a boozy pub.
What the Bonzos taught me was a new way to be a fan. I had some sense of what fandom was about from being a precocious Beatles fan. I got all of the Beatles’ records as they came out; I went to their movies; I collected Beatles trading cards; I read about them in fan mags; I owned a Beatles doll (I can’t remember which one) and a Beatles “guitar” (really a plastic ukulele). I made a special effort to visit the home of a friend with a television set on the night they first appeared on Ed Sullivan (the moon landing was the only other telecast of my youth to be treated with equal urgency). I shared this enthusiasm with many others, of course, and participated in discussions of why the Beatles and not the Stones (it was one or the other), favorite Beatle (John), and so on. But becoming an American fan of the Bonzo Dog Band was another story, since to this day I rarely encounter fellow countrymen who have even heard of the group. Although someone had chosen to play them on the radio, and I succeeded over time in turning various of my friends onto them, there was no immediate community of BDB fans, no Bonzomaniacs or Dogheads for me to join.
This lack of community did not discourage me from enacting the usual rituals of fandom. I remember my excitement at finding Keynsham in the bin at my local small town music store-cum-record shop. I bought it on the spot. I haunted the hipper record stores of Harvard Square seeking out more exotic product such as imported discs of compilations and Bonzo offshoots not issued in the US. I became a BDB completist (well, almost—there are still recordings I don’t own) and, over the years, I have amassed a pretty impressive collection of their work, including solo projects, radio performances, out-takes, bootlegs, and various CD remasterings. I immersed myself in BDB lore: the fact that they had been featured on a British television program called Do Not Adjust Your Set; that they appeared performing their song “Death Cab for Cutie” in the Beatles’ television film Magical Mystery Tour, and so on. I came to feel I knew the members of the group and how the band reflected their various sensibilities; I tracked personnel changes. With a friend, I silkscreened my own Bonzo Dog Band t-shirts, featuring the cartoon dog. Much later, I named the dog I adopted while in grad school Bonzo. And, wonder of wonders, I actually saw a live performance in 1971 by a late version of the group called Bonzo Dog Freaks at the Roundhouse in London, a highlight of my concert-going career.
I claim the title of the Bonzo Dog Band’s biggest American fan. It’s been lonely work these 43 years, but someone has to do it. Every year or two, I listen again to the four albums that are the canonical texts of my one-man BDB cult. They still make me laugh and shake my head in amazement, as if I were hearing them pour out of my old Zenith for the first time.
Philip Auslander is professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech. His primary research interest is in performance, especially in relation to music, media, and technology. He has written on aesthetic and cultural performances as diverse as theatre, performance art, music, stand-up comedy, robotic performance, and courtroom procedures. He is the author of five books and editor or co-editor of two collections. His most recently published books are Performing Glam Rock: Gender and Theatricality in Popular Music (2006) and the second edition of Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture (2008).